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On the threshold of change — coalition dialogues could define the future of SA’s democracy

On the threshold of change — coalition dialogues could define the future of SA’s democracy
From left: ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: Leila Dougan) | DA leader John Steenhuisen. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

With the possibility of a coalition in the national government next year, SA faces a choice: greater democracy or more stability. Now, the two biggest parties, the ANC and the DA, may try to impose minimum representation thresholds for Parliament and councils. The only recourse of smaller parties would be to fight this in court — a fight likely to lead to increased political and legal turmoil ahead of next year’s elections.

On Friday and Saturday last week, Deputy President Paul Mashatile hosted a National Dialogue on Coalition Governments. The aim was to have party leaders, civil society groups and experts under the same roof to find ways to improve the way coalitions work in South Africa.

All political parties were invited and the EFF was the only party in Parliament to stay away. This is intriguing (though not surprising, considering Julius Malema’s political style), as the EFF may turn out to be a key player after next year’s polls. Malema will be trying to keep all of his options open and could have felt that any comments by his party at this gathering limited those options.

In another not-surprising detail, African Transformation Movement leader Vuyo Zungula gave an address in which he condemned the entire event and walked out.

Within hours of the national dialogue starting it was already clear how the arguments were lining up for those who remained.

Both the ANC and the DA say there needs to be a way to improve the stability of coalitions and prevent smaller parties from holding the balance of power. Both have suffered from this in the past, with smaller parties appearing to sometimes hold them to ransom.

They propose that there should be a threshold — a minimum amount of votes — for parties as a whole (and not just individual members) to get a seat in Parliament or on a council. The implications of this have been considered in the past, with the minister of cooperative governance and traditional affairs, Thembi Nkadimeng, suggesting that even a 1% threshold would dramatically reduce the number of parties represented in councils. In Joburg, it would probably remove about 20 of 30 parties in that city’s council.

The ANC and DA suggest this would lead to better, more stable governance and reduce the horse-trading prevalent in councils.

They also say that the current situation, where a tiny party (often a party built around a single personality) holds the balance of power is not democratic. Why should a party that receives a tiny fraction of the vote decide who is to govern for the majority?

As Municipal IQ’s Kevin Allan has pointed out, Cope’s Colleen Makhubele was able to hold the position of Speaker of the Johannesburg City Council after winning just 0.22% of the vote (less than one-quarter of 1%). At one point, five of the 10 members of the mayoral committee were from smaller parties.

By any understanding, this is not democracy. It is certainly not majority rule.

Ever-shifting balance of power

The ANC and the DA also raise the spectre of what could happen were there to be a large number of smaller parties in the National Assembly next year, with the balance of power changing almost on a daily basis.

Of course, the ANC and DA are among those who stand to gain the most from effectively shutting out smaller parties.

The smaller parties, correctly, see this as an existential threat. They may literally cease to exist if this happens.

For example, Al Jama-ah, which currently has its second mayor in Joburg, could well have no representation at all under such a proposal. It has joined other smaller parties in opposing such a move.

They argue that imposing such a threshold is undemocratic and would limit the number of voices in our legislatures.

On Monday morning, on SAfm, the Al Jama-ah leader Ganief Hendricks argued that Helen Suzman had been the only representative of the Progressive Party for many years in the apartheid Parliament. She was able to use this position to great effect and shone a spotlight on the injustice of the system.

Hendricks contended that the ability of one person to use such a position to fight against government wrongdoing and injustice would be lost through the imposition of a threshold.

Professor Steven Friedman has averred that imposing a threshold is effectively a move from the bigger parties to use their current advantage to cement their commanding positions for generations to come.

While this is a powerful argument, there is a counter-argument to it: our system already has a threshold in that only parties that get more than a certain number of votes can be represented in the first place — they have to win their seat at an election.

And then there is a suggestion by Ebrahim Fakir that while a representative threshold should not be imposed, there could be a threshold for a party to be represented in the executive.

In other words, tiny parties would still be represented, but could not actually be a part of coalition governments unless they received, for example, 10% of the vote.

The allure of underhand approaches

While this has merit and should be considered, it does have at least one drawback.

If parties are not able to be part of coalitions, but can vote in Parliament (or a council), they will be vulnerable to underhand approaches. One can imagine the deals that could be struck; a party that passes the threshold in Joburg could suddenly be given a key position by a party desperate to win a vote in the National Assembly. Or hard cash could be handed over in return for votes.

Meanwhile, in the National Assembly, the ANC and the DA between them probably have more than enough votes to pass whichever measures they agree into law. And, considering that they both feel strongly about this, they may be able to prioritise this bill over other, perhaps more pressing, parliamentary business.

This raises interesting questions.

Is it correct that the two biggest parties in SA are able to gang up against all the smaller parties?

And yet, if one views this through the support these parties have won rather than the number of parties with voices, they represent (together) about 77% of the votes cast in the general elections in 2019. So should they not just represent the majority view and go ahead?

Should they do this, the smaller parties will only have the Constitutional Court to turn to in a bid to oppose it. Judges would then have to decide on a massive change to our political system just before a crucial election.

Another big legal challenge that will come before judges in the months ahead of that poll is to the disastrous Electoral Reform Act, which is supposed to regulate how independent candidates will contest in the polls.

While there are huge concerns about what could happen ahead of the elections, it is also worth considering how important this weekend’s gathering was.

Instead of shouting at each other, political party leaders met to soberly discuss a way forward.

That, at least, gives us some hope for the future. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Alan Salmon says:

    Many of the small parties are centred around one large ego, who is guaranteed a position in power and income from the small number of seats won. The result is dilution of the opposition and governing parties, which leads to unstable coalitions and poor governance. There has to be a threshold.

    • Tina Kohn says:

      Fully agree.
      The necessary “country before my own ego” character necessary for good governance can start by forcing smaller parties to merge. Then it will go rather about what they want than who.

  • Jon Quirk says:

    What this article makes abundantly clear is the need for all council members to be properly financially, morally able and accountable, and that their language, communications and rationalising skills are up to the task. The World is getting increasingly complex and a minimum standard equivalent to that of at least university entrance standard, a non-negotiable.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    Of course the small parties will scream because they see their meal ticket drifting away, and going back to driving taxis isn’t a pleasant thought. Most countries with PR have a threshold, usually far higher than 1% for obvious reasons. The Constitution speaks of a system “in general, proportional representation”. Removing the one percenters hardly conflicts with “in general”.

  • Rob vZ says:

    1% of the electorate threshold should be a minimum. Smaller parties should be forced into coalitions. I personally feel that there should be three to 5 political parties only. All of these tiny parties are representing narrow ethnic, religious or geographic interests.

  • Dick Binge Binge says:

    We are forgetting that at least one of the larger parties has to cow tow to the demands of the smaller parties. If coalitions had to be formed by the two largest parties this would not happen. They need to grow up and find each other.

  • Robert Douglas says:

    I have a problem with ‘greater democracy’ as suggested by Stephen Grootes . Surely democracy is what it is ; on occasionit could happen that the powers that be,attempt to erode or curb aspects of it !
    Yet Democracy , like truth, does not come in various flavours !

  • Tivan Leak says:

    “By any understanding, this is not democracy. It is certainly not majority rule.” I do not agree. When we elect our representatives, they represent us. The candidates from smaller parties occupy positions of power because the representatives of the majority decided to vote them into those positions. Another worrying point which the article does not address is the tension between proportional representation and first past the post in SA. PR has the benefit that smaller parties are still represented, thresholds undermine that benefit. Switching to FPTP constituency voting would be better than thresholds. It would allow voters to keep their representatives accountable and reduce the phenomenon we’re seeing with the ANC government where juniors in the legislature fail to keep their seniors in the executive accountable because of the insecurity of their tenure.

    • Steve Davidson says:

      Have you seen the total stuff up FPTP has caused in the UK over many many years? In their case, only a small percentage of voters effectively rule the roost and a large percentage of voters don’t get a chance to change things. At least with PR the smaller parties get a chance to have their say from the opposition benches, but why on earth they should be allowed into government is, well, like the UK system in effect. The tail really wagging the dog? Madness.

      At the same time I’d agree that the straight PR system here doesn’t give voters the chance to address their local issues as the MPs don’t represent them directly, so maybe the Additional Member system might be better. Who knows.

  • Change is good sa says:

    Every disgruntled ‘ego’ starts their own party, because they have a small grievance with a larger party and they think they can build their own party through one election period. The number of small parties in existence now shows this immaturity. These are wasted votes, unless the party has a chance of serious growth in a particular region. Individuals can also be used by larger parties, as in JHB currently, to play politics instead of delivering to the citizens. The circus in JHB is a good example of the outcomes of this politicking of the ANC. There is plenty of time to change our political system in the future when the coalition process is more mature.
    Thresholds are the way to go.

  • manfred.johannes says:

    If one looks at Europe, and especially Germany, it is clear that large parties lose support and the fewer and fewer people bother to vote at all. The root cause of this lies partly in the fact, that one can pursue a career as a politician without any experience at all, other that working for a political party and making a noise. The solution therefor partly lies in the challenge of the larger parties to get people off their butts to go and vote…. and I think physical service delivery and job creation are the key….. “Yes, we can” and “Yes, we already did it” will cook the goose!

  • montebe montebe says:

    Ridiculous and unlikely as it sounds, what is needed is for the major parts to share power on a proportional basis and to govern together. The ANC and DA’s ideologies are not that far apart. The petty politicking and constant divisive discourse is what keeps them apart. Together for once in the interests of the country, govern with honesty, intelligence and with the interests of the nation for once!
    Yeah right! Dream on! How hard would this be for the senior politicians to grow up?

  • Michael Rice says:

    Stephen, Stephen, number of votes NOT amount. Please!!!!!!!

  • Bob Dubery says:

    The coalition currently running Johannesburg certainly represents a majority of the Citizens. Can we please get past that.

    What is not clear is whether or not, say, COPE voters wanted their party getting cozy with the ANC and the EFF, to say nothing of the violent unconstitutionalists that are the PA.

  • robert.ingle says:

    One thing I think is worth mentioning is that having a minimum threshold for parliamentary representation in proportional voting systems is a widespread practice. Germany has a 5% threshold for example, which its liberal FDP party failed to reach in 2013 and so was not represented until the next election in 2017. Norway also requires a minimum vote share of 4% for allocation of party list seats in parliament. Clearly thresholds can be misused – Turkey’s has been as high as 10%, but a 1% minimum threshold if implemented would be low by global standards. I think it’s worth considering.

  • jobstbod says:

    As per usual, Stephen Grootes provides a sober, critical analyses of the present debate on the extent of a threshold for representatives of political parties to (a) gain a seat on the various legislatures and (b) to be eligible to serve on the various executives. However, if one accepts that the SA Constitution provides for a “participatory democracy” which, according to Justice Albie Sachs ” demands ongoing public engagement and the recognition of the diverse voices within our society”, it becomes necessarily essential to widen this debate. How can one ensure that the views of minority groups and especially the multitudes of “forgotten” and marginalised citizens living in urban slums or remote rural regions, be listened to and that they can hold public representatives accountable? What is being done to make every citizen knowledgeable of the basic tenets of our Constitution, of our laws and of other means of having their voices heard? How can it reasonably be argued that our present closed-list proportional representation system fosters accountability? Public representatives in the national and provincial parliaments are determined by political parties instead of the voters themselves. Likewise, unlike countries like the USA and Germany, the President of the country is elected by the majority political party and thus accountable to her/his political party rather than the electorate. It high time to seriously reassess the Van Zyl-Slabbert recommendations.

    • Theresa Avenant says:

      “What is being done to make every citizen knowledgeable of the basic tenets of our Constitution, of our laws and of other means of having their voices heard?” WE NEED LEGAL EDUCATION IN OUR SCHOOLS. Surely part of our education system should include, as compulsory knowledge, the rights (including Constitutional rights) and responsibilities of each and every citizen, and a basic knowledge of the laws that affect everyday life, which should include debate on the basic tenets of political systams. This needs to be done through education, as a completely separate subject and not through e.g. something like LO (Life Orientation). Voters need to know what they are voting for and learn to be wary of false news and probaganda. Fixing the education system is a big part of the problem. Of course, eradication of poverty is part of the picture.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    jm didn’t need to be at the Parliamentary meeting – he has already done the deal, it’s in the bag…and we all know it!

  • Roelf Pretorius says:

    Stephen, under the suggestion of Ebrahim Fakir it does not mean that the small parties can’t form part of a coalition. It only means that, even if they form part of a coalition, they will not be allowed to have a seat on the executive. This does make sense, because it will serve as an incentive for these small parties to strive to get more support; often the one-seat party councillors have the attitude of “I just want to retain my seat when election comes”. And besides, the bigger political parties can pick and choose among their councillors those who have the leadership skills to lead; the one-man parties only have one person that will be allocated the executive position, even if he/she has absolutely nothing to contribute in the executive, thereby negatively influencing the quality of the executive. And the smaller political parties then also have less to gain by “crossing the floor”. I like the idea.

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